7 interesting vessels to sail through Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge is world-famous for many reasons: its iconic architecture; its location in the heart of London; and that it opens for vessels - in fact around 800 vessels still pass through the Bascules each year. 

The types of boats, barges and ships that visit continue to change - from cargo vessels and paddle steamers to pleasure cruises and royal yachts. We’ve taken a look through our archives to find some of the most interesting and iconic boats and ships that have passed through Tower Bridge and present seven of the best Bridge Lifts below. If you like this article, sign up for our newsletter to receive the latest news and offers from Tower Bridge straight to your inbox.

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Painting by William-Wyllie, Opening of Tower Bridge

1. The first Bridge Lift - 1894

Everyone wants to be the ‘first’ to do something – first man on the moon (1969), first selfie (1893), first video on YouTube (2005) - but what was the first vessel to pass through Tower Bridge?

Tower Bridge was officially opened on 30 June 1894 by HRH the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII 1901-10). Huge crowds lined the Thames in giddy anticipation. As the clock turned midday, the ceremonial trumpets sounded, the Bridge was blessed and, after a two minute delay ‘during which the crowd held their breaths’, the Bascules lifted for the first time. In celebration, the guns of the Tower of London fired a Royal Salute and the ships began their approach…

First through the Bridge was the Harbour Master’s vessel Daisy. She may have been the first, but she was quickly followed by a procession of honourary vessels: The Conservator Steamer; then the Trinity House Yacht Irene; the gunboat HMS Landrail; The Bismark; and the Clacton Belle. These last three can be seen in William Lionel Wyllie’s painting ‘Opening of Tower Bridge’, pictured adjacent, which is on show at the Guildhall Art Gallery.

2. London’s own sea cruise

The British seaside getaway is an iconic part of the country’s history – ice cream, arcades, beaches and piers – what’s not to love.

In 1932 the Royal Eagle was one of the biggest, fastest, luxury paddle steamers, ferrying passengers between London and several seaside destinations including Southend-on-sea, Ramsgate and Margate. Between 1932 and 1938, it’s estimated she carried more than three million passengers – that’s half a million passengers every summer.

In this promotional video, the Royal Eagle is taking day trippers through Tower Bridge and along the Thames towards Ramsgate and Clacton. Guests are treated to fine dining and relaxing lounges. Passengers snooze on deck, and, as was the fashion of the day, almost everyone is wearing a hat.

You can still take this journey on either pleasure Steamers Waverley & Balmoral, which depart from Tower Pier. You can sail back in time aboard these wonderful historic passenger ships to the Kent and Essex coasts and to the historic Thames Forts.

Royal Yacht Brittania sailing through Tower Bridge. Credit: Topfoto

3. The Royal Yacht Britannia

In the Spring of 1954, thousands of Brits flocked to the banks of the River Thames to see the Royal Yacht Britannia pass under Tower Bridge, bringing Her Majesty the Queen and her family home from a Commonwealth tour that lasted six months. It was the first to be undertaken by the Royal Yacht Britannia, which the Queen had launched herself in 1953. 

During her career as Royal Yacht, Britannia conveyed the Queen, members of the Royal Family and various dignitaries on 696 foreign visits and 272 visits in British waters. Charles and Diana, the Prince and Princess of Wales, took their honeymoon cruise on Britannia in 1981. The Royal Yacht Britannia also made a visit to the Thames at Tower Bridge to honour the Queen Mother's 90th birthday in August 1990.

On 20 October 1997 the royal yacht made its final journey passing through Tower Bridge. It was decommissioned in 1997 and is now berthed in Edinburgh, where it opened in 1998 as a star tourist attraction

Image: Topfoto

4. The bridge lift that wasn’t booked

On the morning of 15 May 2004, the STS Lord Nelson set off along the Thames towards Tower Bridge and the Pool of London, expecting the Bridge to lift. The impressive three-mast vessel, along with her sister The SV Tenacious, were the only wheelchair accessible tall ships in the world, built so that both disabled and non-disabled people could sail as crew.

As the vessel approached Tower Bridge, they radioed ahead, as is normal procedure, but received no response. As the Nelson got closer and closer to the the Bridge, further attempts to contact were met with silence and the Bridge didn’t look like it was ready to open. Finally, through Woolwich Radio, the crew had made contact with the staff at Tower Bridge and it was ascertained that no Bridge Lift had been booked! The experienced crew set to action to turn the boat around in time… but it was too late.

Due to the current, and the proximity to other vessels the Lord Nelson struck the south pier of Tower Bridge just after 10am. Fortunately, no one was injured and there was very little damage to the ship.

A later enquiry vindicated Tower Bridge authorities, after it established that no notice for a Bridge Lift had been sent or received.

The Lord Nelson was decommissioned in 2019 but her sister still sails today.

5. Third time's the charm

If you think hitting the Bridge once is embarrassing, spare a thought for the Spanish Cargo Ship Urquiola. On 30 January 1967 the Urquiola hit Tower Bridge for the third time in ten years (1957, 64 & 67). A police spokesman announced – ‘they are starting to make habit of it’.

The damage report, date 30/1/1967 states:

'Tower Bridge was closed to traffic for an hour and a half today (Monday) after being hit and damaged by a Spanish cargo vessel. The 7,000 tom 'Monte Urquiola' swung broadside into the bridge as it was being towed to the Pool of London. It smashed into the north east buttress sending blocks of masonry tumbling into the river.'

The Monte Urquiola (1949-74) was one of four sisters operating for the Aznar Line until Autumn 1974, and was a frequent guest in the Pool in London. The Aznar Line operated a large share of the Canary Islands fruit and vegetable market to Britain, sailing to both London and Liverpool. 

The Monte Urquiola was renamed In 1974 and decommissioned in 1977.

Monte Urquiola - Copyright Bob Scott
Image: Monte Urquiola heading towards the Pool of London in 1969 - Copyright Bob Scott

2012 Opening Ceremony. Copyright Clive Totman

6. London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony

In the Summer of 2012, Olympic fever struck London. For just over two weeks, athletes came from all over the world to compete in the world’s greatest sporting event. London 2012’s opening ceremony, arguably the best yet, showcased the British spirit to the world and some of the city’s most iconic landmarks. 

An estimated 900 million people watched David Beckham driving the speedboat Max Power, carrying Torchbearer Jade Bailey and the flame on its penultimate stretch along the Thames. As the speed boat powered towards the Bridge, the Bascules raised and fireworks flew from the high-level walkways. A curtain of sparks fell from the Bascules as the boat continued on its way to the Olympic Stadium - one of the defining images of the London 2012 Games.

The speedboat - a Bladerunner BR RIB 35 called 'Max Power' fitted with two Mercury Verado V6 engines providing a maximum speed of 65 knots (75mph). The speedboat is reported to have been sold for £250,000 after the opening ceremony.

Image: Copyright Clive Totman

Le Boreal cruising through Tower Bridge

7. Cruise Ships in Central London

It’s not everyday you expect to see a cruise ship entering central London, but since 2013, the city has attracted no less than 30 cruise ships a year: the Hamburg, Le Boreal, Silver Cloud and Silver Wind and many others have passed under Tower Bridge. 

These mammoth vessels are much larger than the ships that originally passed through in 1894, but vessels like the enormous Silver Cloud, at 157m long, still manage to squeeze through carrying up to 300 passengers and a crew of 222.

You can get a spectacular view of the ship passing under Tower Bridge through the glass floor. They are so tall, sometimes it seems you can almost touch them.

Since 1894, Tower Bridge has opened hundreds of thousands of times and it will lift for more extraordinary vessels in the years to come. Let us know if we've missed your favourite Bridge Lift on Facebook and Twitter. Follow the link below to find out when the Bridge will lift next.

View scheduled Bridge Lifts

About the Author

Diane Timmins is a member of the Welcome Host Team at Tower Bridge and The Monument. Part of her role is giving guided tours of Tower Bridge, Monument and of the Pool of London. Diane also records and edits ‘Voices of Tower Bridge’ on our website.